Saturday, August 28, 2004

Corned Beef

Years ago I picked up a little book with a title something like A Simple Cookery Book for the Working Classes. The author was Queen Victoria's chef, apparently.

My favourite recipe in the book was the recipe for jugged hare; now and again I would consider varying the dinner menu at home by getting hold of a dead bunny and jugging it. Readers of a certain age will readily infer from this fact that Ihave never read Watership Down nor the Fabula Petro Cuniculo which was equally celebrated in its own era. This latin classic, which Zeppo Bakunin is fortunate enough to have in his personal library, begins:

OLIM erant quatuor cuniculi parvi, et eorum nomina erant -
Cauda Linea

Cum sua matre in arena infra radicem abietis maximae habitant.

The recipe for jugged hare begins in an equally idiosyncratic manner. As I don't have the book to hand, I'll have to quote it from memory. It goes something like this:

If you are a tenant on a great estate, it may sometimes happen that the owner will make you a gift of a hare which has been taken by hunting. And if you do receive a hare in this way, this is the manner in which you should cook it.

Although I don't particularly want to turn this blog off into some kind of foodie diary, I'm starting to think that I might occasionally write on the theme of practical cookery for the politically correct. The seed was planted by a remark to the effect that there weren't enough people writing about how cooking is actually done; a lot of the foodie press, and the foodie television, is about how cooking could be if you only were a celebrity chef or had the time and money to get off to specialty food stores and buy bizarre ingredients like dried sour cranberries (which featured in the epicure section of Tuesday's Age in a recipe for "cobbler", the American equivalent of our crumbles). That ought to do it for the prefatory remarks, let's get down to business.

If you live close to a tram line that runs past Melbourne's Victoria Market, it may sometimes happen that you will go there and buy a one and a half kilogram piece of corned silverside from one of the butchers there. And if you do purchase corned silverside in this way, this is the manner in which you should cook it1.

Take a large stockpot and place an inverted dinner plate into the base of the pot (if you live in a shared household and the plate is not your own, you should obtain the owner's permission to use the plate). Alternatively, you can use one of those poncey, expensive stainless steel pots with a colander insert that I saw in the window of a kitchen equipment shop in the eastern suburbs the other night. If I could afford one of those, I might not be cooking corned beef, except as an occasional exercise in culinary slumming2.

Fill the electric kettle and plug it in to boil while you prepare the beef. Rinse the beef in cold water and place it in the pot on top of the plate (the plate is there to prevent the beef from sticking to the base of the pot as it cooks). Add the water from the kettle, and top up with cold water until the beef starts to float. Now add:

A couple of bay leaves;
Some peppercorns (just grab a few more than you can count from the jar or packet);
Four inches or so of greens of leek or
A whole onion, halved and peeled;
A dried out celery stick from the fridge (as long as it isn't mouldy) or
The entire stems and leaves of a celeriac.

You can also add any old turnips, parsnips or radishes you might have hanging around the fridge. Beetroot and pototoes on the other hand are a definite no-no; beetroot will obviously discolour the beef and potatoes will leech starch into the poaching broth and cloud it3.

(In some households, you may have to deal with housemates who object to the idea of spending $9.00 out of kitty on a slab of corned beef and then putting it into a pot of water with a load of kitchen garbage that's only fit for throwing out. The simplest way to deal with this is don't get caught. I hasten to add that this is not a problem here in the Pascoe Vale dacha.)

Bring the water to the boil and lower the temperature so that the stock is simmering. This can be a bit tricky to detect with the plate in the bottom of the pan (the steam from the boiling will collect underneath it; at irregular intervals there will be enough pressure to lift the edge of the plate and release the steam).

Simmer for an hour and remove the garbage from the stock. Finally allow the beef to simmer for at least another two hours. The timing isn't all that critical and the pot can be left to simmer unattended while you write a blog about how to cook corned beef. Of course it is prudent to check on it occasionally. And perhaps turn it over at least once during the simmering, so that the top of the piece gets to sit in the deep water as well as the bottom of the piece.

Once the beef is cooked you can, of course, serve it up for dinner. There's nothing wrong with the traditional accompaniments of cabbage (preferably Savoy) and mashed potato (Desiree or Bintjes, if you can get your hands on them). Before you carve the beef, you'll need to remove it from the stock and sit it on a clean plate for a few minutes to drain off excess moisture that might otherwise run into the mash and turn it into an unsightly sludge. After you've carved off enough beef to serve, the remainder goes back in the pot.

If you're going to use the beef for cold cuts and sandwiches, leave it in the pot once the heat is turned off and allow it to cool overnight. Remove it to a clean plate the following morning, cover it and put it in the fridge.

1: I think a few words on the selection of the beef might be useful. I find it easiest to trust the butcher on this one. The first piece of corned beef I cooked this way was selected this way; the butcher held it up and said "How about this one? It's got a nice eye piece in it." It was, indeed, a nice eye piece and after cooking it, I trimmed out the eye. After I had removed some fat, the eye slices presented very well on the dinner plates with the Savoy cabbage and mash. Today's piece was also butcher selected. It's not quite as good looking as the eye piece, but it's a good middle cut with a consistent grain throughout which is good for sandwiches.

2: Another alternative is to use one of those fold out steamer things you can often pick up in the kitchenware section of the supermarket for a few bucks. I used the plate because I didn't have one of these to hand. And I may as well grudgingly admit that I wouldn't mind having one of those poncey stainless steel pots with the colander insert in the kitchen cupboard because they're bloody useful and not just for boiling pasta.

3: If you're wondering why swedes don't score a mention here it's simple; swedes are not a vegetable, they're cattle feed. Why they turn up on sale for human consumption is beyond me. I wouldn't be surprised if feeding people swedes turned out to be one of those wartime austerity measures that just stuck after the Second World War ended, like the Japanese "tradition" of eating whale meat.


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